Andrew N. Johnson (1865-1921), known as "A. N." throughout his life, was an influential African American journalist, mortician,
and Republican Party official in Mobile, Mobile County, and later in Nashville, Tennessee. Johnson exemplifies Alabama's upwardly mobile African American businessmen and professionals who came of age after Emancipation and rose to prominence after Reconstruction. Like many of his contemporaries in Alabama and across the South, Johnson found that hard work, perseverance, and lofty aspirations
did not always translate into success. Alabama's rising black middle class struggled against the strictures of white social,
political, and economic control, tightening segregation, and the resistance to change of an older generation of African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington. Such forces, combined with often unpredictable political agendas of whites and blacks, produced an environment in Alabama
that stifled a man of Johnson's talents, energy, and ambitions.
Born in Marion in Perry County in December 1865, Johnson studied at the state normal schools in his hometown and in Montgomery and at Talladega College in preparation for a teaching career. In 1886, after completing his college studies, Johnson married Lillie A. Jones, of Marion, with whom he had two sons, Lorenzo and Andrew Jr. Between 1886 and 1889, Johnson served in north Alabama as a railroad postal clerk. He lost this federal position, probably because of his political activities in the late 1880s as chairman of the Bibb County Republican Executive Committee. U.S. Civil Service regulations prohibited federal employees from participating in partisan political causes.
In the autumn of 1889, likely in response to his political activity, local all-white authorities in Blocton, Bibb County, accused Johnson of instigating a "race war" by arming blacks with rifles. In fact, a group of local blacks had merely established a Masonic lodge, of which Johnson was a member, and whites grew threatened by their organizing. Johnson was shocked to hear about the allegations. Although he was not charged with any criminal offense, the episode would become the first of several well-publicized, racially charged incidents in which he became embroiled during his life.
In 1891, Johnson became editor of the Mobile State Republican, a newspaper known for its advocacy of African Americans' constitutional rights and its opposition to Bourbon Democrat politics. In 1894, he established the Mobile Weekly Press. In June 1895, he joined a small chorus of African American journalists who decried Booker T. Washington's refusal of asylum on the Tuskegee Institute campus to Thomas Harris, a wounded black man fleeing from a white mob. The criticisms raised the ire of Washington and his loyal followers.
In 1896, using profits from the Weekly Press, Johnson rented a white mortician's hearse and established a funeral home. Within eight years, his new venture was financially secure. He also sought to join the ranks of Washington's inner circle of advisors, the so-called Tuskegee Machine, not recognizing that Washington's faint praise of his success hid behind-the-scenes efforts by the Tuskegee leader to undercut Johnson's influence.
During the emotional public debate in 1901 over Alabama's new constitution and its disfranchisement provisions, Johnson editorialized that blacks should oppose the measure. Unbeknownst to Johnson, Washington was meeting secretly with his white allies to create a compromise that would minimize the impact of the constitution on black educational funding. Washington's allies in the black community joined the white press in attacking Johnson's views. Upon ratification of the constitution, Johnson turned his attention to expanding his businesses in Mobile and elsewhere and public opposition to Republicans who supported white supremacy. During the early twentieth century, the Republican Party in the South split into two major factions: the "black and tans," who favored interracial membership and some semblance of political equality for African Americans, and the "lily-whites," who espoused a party and policies dominated by whites. Johnson also opened a drug store in Mobile and expanded his newspaper and mortician businesses to Memphis, where they also flourished. By 1902, Johnson had 15 employees on his combined payrolls in Mobile and was earning more than $20,000 annually from his businesses in Mobile and Memphis.
Despite his own remarkable financial success, Johnson evinced little empathy for less fortunate black businesspeople and often launched aggressive public attacks via the Weekly Press on his competitors. His stands, which included opposition to blacks patronizing black-owned business for the sake of supporting the black community, placed him at odds with Washington's National Negro Business League and many struggling black businessmen.
During the 1890s, Johnson was very active in local Republican politics. He ran unsuccessfully for both the state legislature and the U.S. Congress. He served on the Alabama Republican Executive Committee for 16 years and attended the Republican National Conventions in 1896, 1900, and 1904. Johnson's main adversaries in the lily-white faction were Charles H. Scott, Montgomery's representative to the Republican National Committee, and William F. Tebbetts, Mobile's customs collector, both openly racist.
On July 4, 1904, during a public Independence Day celebration, Tebbetts ordered the Rev. Albert F. Owens and other blacks to leave Bienville Square. Johnson was infuriated because Tebbetts had no legal authority to expel anyone from a public park. When Tebbetts was up for reappointment as customs collector, Johnson put himself forward as a candidate, asking Emmett Scott and Washington for their support. Although Washington pressured Pres. Theodore Roosevelt to depose Tebbetts, he did not champion Johnson for the position. At Washington's behest however, Roosevelt granted Johnson an interview in January 1905. Johnson presented his views on Tebbetts and invited Roosevelt to visit Mobile in the fall. Accurately assessing the situation, Johnson left the White House convinced that the president would reappoint Tebbetts out of political necessity, which he did. Although Roosevelt did visit Mobile, Johnson failed to convince him to attend a separate meeting with the city's black leaders.
After his disillusioning experience in 1905, Johnson grew increasingly more reclusive and alienated from his circle of black business and professional associates. A year later, in October, a mob lynched two young black men accused of rape at Magazine Point, north of the city limits. These were the first lynchings in Mobile County since the early 1890s, and the grisly acts shocked both blacks and whites. Fearing white retaliation, the majority of black Mobilians refused to speak publicly about the lynchings. Johnson, however, yielded to entreaties from both black and white leaders and spoke out for peace and racial reconciliation. Johnson invited Gov. William D. Jelks to an emergency meeting of Mobile's black leaders. Jelks, however, responded by releasing a letter admonishing Johnson and suggesting it was the presence of "vagrants, thieves, and rapists" in the black community that prompted the actions by Mobile's whites.
As a result of Jelks's public rebuke, Johnson's credibility in Mobile suffered. Rumors again spread throughout the city that Johnson had brought in by rail a large cache of rifles and ammunition to arm blacks, and his enemies circulated distorted versions of his speeches and editorials as evidence of his radicalism. He accused his two closest black friends, James T. Peterson and Clarence W. Allen, of conspiring with whites to have him killed to gain control of his businesses. Utterly discouraged, Johnson sold his businesses to Clarence Allen, one of the supposed co-conspirators he named in the murder plot, and left Mobile in November 1906. During the winter of 1906-07, Johnson and his family traveled across the nation, staying briefly in St. Louis, Houston, Indianapolis, and Columbus, Ohio. By the end of 1907, Johnson had reestablished himself as a mortician in Nashville.
He soon assumed a prominent leadership role in his new community. By the spring of 1909, he was serving as president of Tennessee's black Embalmers and Undertakers Association. Within four years he opened the Majestic Theater and became director of Nashville's black Board of Trade. When not engaged in his business operations, Johnson supervised the local arrangements for Washington's visits to Tennessee and attended meetings of the National Negro Business League. Later, Clarence Allen, who had purchased Johnson's business five years earlier, asked him to revive the failing funeral home in Mobile. Emmett Scott, Washington's former personal secretary and member of the Tuskegee Machine, apparently played a significant role in Allen's decision to bring Johnson back as his partner. With his son Lorenzo as secretary, he became a full partner in the Johnson-Allen Funeral Home.
Johnson also participated in the Mobile Emancipation Association's plans for welcoming Pres. Woodrow Wilson to the city in the autumn of 1913. Although Johnson had very low expectations about the role of the black community in the upcoming event, he proceeded with his plans. During Wilson's six-hour stay in the city on October 27, 1913, he breakfasted with the Southern Commercial Congress and delivered a speech on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. He also toured the waterfront by boat and rode in a motorcade down Government Street. At Broad Street, per Johnson's arrangements, the president's entourage paused briefly to review a parade of black business and fraternal groups and school children. After his bitter disillusionment over Roosevelt's visit in 1905, Johnson felt vindicated to some extent.
During the next year's Emancipation Day celebration, Johnson shared the speaker's platform with other black leaders, including James Peterson. By 1914, Johnson's life and career had come full circle. He somehow had reconciled his differences with Peterson and Allen, the two men he alleged had conspired to end his life eight years earlier.
Until his death in 1921, Johnson divided his time between Mobile and Nashville and maintained residences in both cities. He
devoted his remaining years to charitable relief efforts for poor African Americans. In his last political foray in 1916, Johnson was selected from Tennessee's Sixth District as a delegate
to the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Johnson's life was a mix of remarkable achievements and deep disappointments.
Yet, at least for a brief time in Mobile's history, he served as a bold spokesman for the city's African Americans.
Alsobrook, David E. "Mobile's Forgotten Progressive: A.N. Johnson, Editor and Entrepreneur." Alabama Review 32 (July 1979): 188-202.
Richardson, Clement, ed. The National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race. Montgomery, Ala., National Publishing Company, Inc., 1919.
Washington, Booker T. The Negro in Business. Boston: Hertel, Jenkins & Co., 1907.
David E. Alsobrook
History Museum of Mobile
Published May 13, 2009
Last updated August 14, 2013